Patiño to Pujols: Best player at each age

On Monday night, the Nationals’ Luis García, who was born on May 16, 2000, hit a home run against the Atlanta Braves. This made García the first player born in the 2000s to homer in a Major League Baseball game, and it also served the purpose of making people like your author, who was old enough to have his parents already questioning most of his life decisions by May 16, 2000, feel a little like the Crypt Keeper. It’s a reminder that while your life keeps going, the baseball players just keep staying the same age.

Expect more of these in the coming years: First player born after 9-11, first player born after the Red Sox won the World Series, first player born after the Cubs won the World Series. (That kid is 3 years old and already recognizing the spin on a curveball the second it leaves the pitcher’s hand.) But the great thing about baseball is that it is for both the young and old: The electrifying raw talent that comes with youth nestles perfectly with the wild veterans getting by on guile and smarts.

Thus, today, in honor of García, we take a look at the best baseball player at each age in the sport. Now, for the sake of simplicity, we are going with their “baseball age,” which is the age they were on June 30 of this year, as opposed to their actual age at this exact second. This allows us to not sweat individual birthdays so much, giving us a universal figure to work off, and it also, if I’m being honest, makes it a lot easier to search on Baseball Reference.

We’re accounting for this year’s success in this tally, of course, but we’re really trying to pick the best overall pick: What you’ve done up to this point in your career, particularly recently, factors in as well. You can watch the arc of a baseball career in this list.

20: Luis Patiño, RHP, Padres: García has the highlight homer, but it’s Patiño who is the truly elite prospect prospect. He hasn’t gotten off to the most blistering start in San Diego, but his stuff is electric, and he’s yet another guy who has San Diego looking like one of the most thrilling teams to watch over the next half-decade. Runner-up: Luis García, Nationals.

21: Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres: Tatis, during one of the most disorienting periods of upheaval in baseball history, has essentially taken over the sport, finding himself at the center of every conversation, from the stylistic to the statistical. This is how baseball is played at the absolute highest level, and Tatis is making it absolutely mesmerizing to watch. Runner-up: Juan Soto, Nationals.

22: Ronald Acuña Jr., OF, Braves: He has gotten off to a slightly slow start this year, which is to say he’s still been the best player on a first-place team. And as we saw with his three-homer game, when he turns it on, he can carry a team like no other in baseball. The question isn’t when he wins his first MVP: It’s how many he will win. Runner-up: Bo Bichette, Blue Jays/Luis Robert, White Sox.

23: Gleyber Torres, SS, Yankees: This is another budding superstar who has had a slow start to 2020, but this was a guy who hit 38 homers last year. With all the Yankees’ injuries, they’re going to need him to rediscover that form (and his hamstring to hold up), and quickly. Few players are more capable of it. Runner-up: Eloy Jiménez, White Sox.

24: Cody Bellinger, OF, Dodgers: The defending NL MVP is starting to round back into form, and it is a measure of just how stacked the Dodgers are right now that it has been easy to forget he has even been here all year. We will all be reminded very soon. Runner-up: Jack Flaherty, Cardinals.

25: Shane Bieber, RHP, Indians: You have to hand it to the players, they saw this coming back in March, and there’s nobody in the sport pitching at the level he’s at right now. Remember when his Players Weekend jersey was “NOT JUSTIN”? The Canadian pop star should start wearing a “NOT SHANE” shirt. Runner-up: Pete Alonso, Mets.

26: Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians: There aren’t as many trade tumors this year, but there is no question that teams will be salivating over Lindor this offseason. Whoever gets him — and it could still be Cleveland — will immediately transform their entire franchise. Runner-up: Alex Bregman, Astros.

27: Mookie Betts, RF, Dodgers: Betts has been everything the Dodgers could have imagined so far — he’s actually first in the NL in WAR, per Baseball Reference — and he is of course just getting started in Los Angeles. Can he get them that elusive title? Can he get them several? Runner-up: Bryce Harper, Phillies.

28: Mike Trout, CF, Angels: The one thing his game was missing heading into this season, apparently, was Dad Stretch. Cross that one off the list; he somehow finds ways to get better every year. Runner-up: Aaron Judge, Yankees.

29: Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees: The team he grew up wanting to pitch for is counting on him more than ever with all its injury woes, and it turns out he’s got a competitive rage in him that might be precisely what the Yankees need. Runner-up: Nolan Arenado, Rockies.

30: Anthony Rendon, 3B, Angels: The Angels’ start has not been what they wanted, but they can’t blame their big free-agent acquisition, who looks just like Anthony Rendon always looks. Runner-up: Freddie Freeman, Braves.

31: DJ LeMahieu, 2B, Yankees: If there were ever an immediate comeback to the “guys can’t hit when they leave Coors Field,” it’s LeMahieu, who has become an elite player since arriving in The Bronx. When the Yankees signed him, you wondered where they would play him. Now it’s impossible to imagine him out of the lineup. If you want to argue Stephen Strasburg, that’s fine, but LeMahieu has been remarkably consistent the past few years, so he’s the pick here. Runner-up: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals.

32: Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets: The inability of his team to show him adequate run support has become such a running joke at this point that it has shrouded just how truly amazing of a pitcher deGrom is. How many more years does he need to do this until we need to start having some Cooperstown conversations? Runner-up: J.D. Martinez, Red Sox.

33: Charlie Blackmon, OF, Rockies: Still hanging around that .400 mark, he’ll secure a spot in baseball history if he gets there. But this is already a four-time All-Star who has quietly become one of the most iconic players ever to wear this uniform. Runner-up: Lance Lynn, Rangers.

34: Carlos Santana, 1B, Indians: He’s back leading the league in walks like he always does, and in 15 years, you will absolutely forget that he ever left Cleveland, however briefly, at all. Runner-up: Josh Donaldson, Twins.

35: Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals: Scherzer will surely still be scowling at hitters and firing fastballs past them when he is 75 years old. I will still be terrified of him. Runner-up: Justin Turner, Dodgers.

36: Zack Greinke, RHP, Astros: There is something wonderfully fitting about the glorious Greinke having one of his best seasons this late in his career. Appreciate every second of Greinke you get, folks: There won’t be another like him. Runner-up: Joey Votto, Reds.

37: Justin Verlander, RHP, Astros: Yes, I know, he’s out, but it just feels disrespectful not to give him this spot regardless. And you know he’s going to come back stronger. Runner-up: Yadier Molina, Cardinals/Robinson Canó, Mets.

38: Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals: Two years ago, it looked like Wainwright’s career was over; he has even admitted as much himself. But he has been terrific in all three of his starts this year … and the Cardinals have won all three games. Runner-up: Oliver Pérez, Indians.

39: Nelson Cruz, RHP, Twins: Cruz is always a pain for baseball age rankings because his birthday is July 1, right after the June 30 cutoff. So this is his age-39 season, even though he is currently 40 years old. Amazingly, there are no other players in their age-39 season in 2020, so there is no runner-up.

40: Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels: The numbers haven’t been there this year, and he’s starting to lose playing time. He’s still going to pass Willie Mays on the all-time home run list any day now. Runner-up: Rich Hill, Twins.